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Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Update 1C: The Scottish Labour Party in 2009

As noted in chapter three (pp. 52-55) the Scottish Labour Party was until May 2007 unique amongst Western European political parties in enjoying four decades of political hegemony in one country. It was a winning electoral machine, adept at responding to and accommodating changes in the Scottish political environment. However, its electoral dominance was lost to the SNP in 2007, its share of first votes falling from 35% to 32%, and second votes from 30% to 29% with its number of MSPs falling from 50 to 46. It lost the 2007 election by one seat – the party has since then struggled to adjust to its opposition status. This update reviews the Labour position ten years after the first Scottish parliamentary elections.

In 1968 when Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election for the SNP she suggested, ‘you could feel a chill along the Labour back-benches, looking for a spine to run up’. It was not until 2007 when that chill was finally felt, and by then the spine of the Labour Party had been weakened by the complacency of four decades of electoral victories. Throughout its period of dominance, membership has been falling and the capabilities of local party organisations declining. Concessions to more proportional electoral methods, the gradual erosion of the party’s voter base but most important the reinvigoration of the SNP has ended Labour hegemony in Scotland. It is no longer the party of government, or the largest party at Scottish level and its sphere of influence in Scottish civic society has been weakening since 2007.

For Scottish Labour in 2007 losing was a shock – they simply were not used to it. As noted in chapter three, the Scottish Labour Party had not ‘lost’ (in terms of seats won) a UK General Election in Scotland or Scottish Parliamentary election, since 1959 (twelve in a row). Labour’s dominance during that period was based on a combination of appeals to working class interest, the idea of social justice and projecting itself as the defenders of Scotland’s interests. Not particularly difficult for a party with roots which lie in Keir Hardie’s founding of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 and whose first UK Prime Minister, James Ramsey MacDonald, was a Scot. It was Scotland’s hegemonic, establishment party often blurring the boundaries separating ‘the party’, civil society and the state. It dominated elections, other political parties and the political agenda in Scotland. Its longitudinal electoral success is rather unique in advanced liberal democracies with fluidity and vote swings the norm.

Its dominance has effectively established the egalitarian politics of social democracy as the parameters under which the agenda of party politics in Scotland is fought. It was aided throughout its period of dominance by a largely compliant print media - unlike the position in England. Local Labour Party machines resembled the old US City Democratic Machines with mutuality and nepotism evident. In large tracts of industrial Scotland ‘the party’ and its internal dense, exclusive politics was the key power base. The lack of clear boundary between party, civil society and the state was evident in local political scandals in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Fife and Renfrewshire councils and national scandals such as ‘Lobbygate’, ‘Officegate’ ‘Wishawgate’ and ‘Warkgate’.

These scandals reflected a level of complacency perhaps inevitable in a party that had been winning for so long. In 2007 the party was left with majority control of only two councils - Glasgow and North Lanarkshire – and the party’s share of the vote in local elections has collapsed from 44% in 1995 to 29% in 2007. However, despite devolution, there has been only a marginal adjustment to the UK Labour Party’s internal structures and culture. Although expanded in recent decades the party headquarters in Scotland in 2009 still lacks autonomy over basic matters of membership, organisation and finance. The Scottish-UK tension remains evident 10 years after devolution. Press stories since 2007 have contained accounts of Gordon Brown’s attempts to keep the SNP out of Government ‘at all costs’, and UK minister, David Cairn’s put down of the new all unionist party Scottish Commission.

The Scottish Labour Party since 2007 has struggled to maintain a balance between adherence to UK policy platforms and ensuring a level of Scottish distinctiveness. Or in the words of Professor James Mitchell, ‘appear more united and more disunited simultaneously’. Not an easy tricky to pull off! The Scottish Labour Party is in opposition, while the UK Party is in Government. As well as this both operate in different party systems – the UK Party competes with the Conservative Party, the Scottish Party operates in a multi-party environment opposing the SNP Government alongside the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Greens.

Post 2007 the Scottish Labour Party is for the first time in recent decades facing the stark electoral rejection that prompts the sort of root and branch soul searching that the UK Party had to undertake in the 1980s and 90s. One may question its organisational capacity to do so. Policy divergence to the extent that it did occur 1999–2007 was more to do with the practical reality of coalition governance, parliamentary arithmetic and the policies of the Blair led UK Governments. The Scottish Labour Party post devolution has been conservative and has yet to disentangle itself from the apron strings of the UK party. Scottish Labour Party inspired policy innovation since 1999 has been negligible. Overall, the Scottish Labour Party remains in a dependent relationship with the UK party, lacking the autonomous ability to proactively develop policy, run and fund its own campaigns or even engage in party member recruitment.

In opposition since 2007 the Scottish Labour Party has been at the vanguard of unionist opposition to the SNP minority Government. Its opposition to them has, at times, appeared obsessive. Given the Parliamentary arithmetic in Holyrood, the Labour opposition could be having far more influence on budgeting, legislation and policy than it has had since May 2007. The SNP Government’s minority status, leaves considerable scope for constructive opposition parties to play a role in governance. However, Scottish Labour’s Scottish leadership appears, 10 years after devolution, to be lacking in the necessary autonomy and leadership to do so. It appears handicapped by continuing deference to the UK Party. Opinion Polls continue to show the Party behind the SNP.

However, all is not lost for Scottish Labour. Despite the devastating impact of the 2007 defeat, it should be remembered that its vote share actually fell less than in 2003. The main difference was the opposition vote was no longer as divided, with the SNP finally emerging to triumph by one seat. It maintains a substantial bedrock of support and has this as a basis for recovery. The unanticipated Glenrothes November 2008 by-election victory over the SNP (after its loss of Glasgow East to the SNP in July 2008) highlighted potential for recovery. The British-Scottish party dynamic may change if the outcome of the 2010 UK General Election is defeat. Moreover, polls still show that it still remains Scotland’s largest party in terms of the electorate’s party identification. However, it has to develop a more constructive oppositional stance and a positive constitutional and policy agenda if it is to have any hope of emerging as Scotland’s largest party in the May 2011 election.


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